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William Laurence Sullivan

William Laurence Sullivan William Laurence Sullivan (November 15, 1872-October 5, 1935) was one of the most eloquent Unitarian ministers of his day and a spokesman for liberal Christianity at a time when religious humanism was gaining favor. In early life, as a Roman Catholic priest, he displayed exemplary courage when under pressure by papal authority to renounce the ideal of free inquiry in biblical interpretation.

William was born in East Braintree, Massachusetts. His parents, Patrick and Joanna (Desmon) Sullivan had emigrated from Bandon, County Cork, Ireland the previous year. In his autobiography, Under Orders, Sullivan remembers being raised in a Roman Catholic household free of "fiddling and enfeebling devotional practices" and with a simple faith: "do not offend God, perform your religious duty and be true to the Church." His father died when William was 14; his mother, remaining single, provided him with measured affection, guidance and discipline.

The impressions created during Sunday Mass had a profound and lasting influence on Sullivan's understanding of religious ritual and the role of the church, nurturing in him a love and reverence for mystery and imagination. "The majestic suggestion of the incomprehensible," he later wrote, "is immeasurably more impressive than comprehension."

As an adolescent Sullivan was seized with the "enormity of evil in the world" and the need of God's assistance. At age fifteen, after reading Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, he became convinced of his vocational calling to priesthood. He chose the confirmation name "Laurence" in honor of a saint who was burned at the stake for what he believed.

From 1892 to 1896 Sullivan prepared for religious life at Boston College and St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. He then joined the Paulist community at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He was ordained as a Paulist priest in 1899, the same year that Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical letter, Testem Benovolentiae, which condemned as heresy such American values of separation of church and state and freedom of religious belief.

Sullivan served as a Paulist mission-preacher in Tennessee, 1899-1901. He soon abandoned traditional scholastic apologetics and adopted a style of preaching that spoke directly to everyday concerns. After poor health led him to physical collapse, he was called back to Washington, D.C. Once fully recovered he was assigned to parish work, teaching and writing for the Catholic Word. During this time he was befriended by bishops with "Americanist" leanings. He also began to correspond with European scholars who would later come to be known as "Modernist."

During 1900-06 Sullivan grappled with moral questions emerging from his research in Catholic history and ecclesiology. He contributed essays and articles to several popular journals, notably the New York Sun and the New York Review, usually under a pseudonym. Using erudite language, persuasive argument, and razor-sharp wit, he promoted liberty of religious thought, protested against church officials in Rome, and advocated freedom to criticize ecclesiastical authority. In his first article for the Review, he contended that there was no disparity between "genuine Catholicism" and the spirit of modern times and that "genuine Catholicism could never stand in the way of two central features of the national temperament in the United States, freedom of speech and national self determination in matters of belief."

In 1907 the bishop suspended publication of the Review. In Sullivan's words, "another corpse was added to the growing graveyard of Catholic publications." In the same year, Pope Pius X condemned "Modernism," banishing progressive scholarship from American Catholic journals. Under threat of dismissal for liberalism in his scripture courses, Sullivan requested to be relieved of his teaching duties. In 1908 he was transferred back into parish ministry and mission work. Friends and colleagues, seeing his growing dissatisfaction, urged him to abandon his intellectual interests for the sake of the Church.

By 1909 Sullivan could no longer make peace with what he saw as the un-Christian authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. He resigned his pastorate in Austin, Texas, severed his ties with the Church and wrote a polemic on papal authority, Letters to His Holiness Pope Pius X, 1910. Influenced by the writings of James Martineau, in 1911 Sullivan joined the Unitarian Church while living in Cleveland. He then taught English and history at Felix Adler's Ethical Culture School in New York, 1911-12. Unsatisfied in this secular occupation, Sullivan sought and received Unitarian fellowship in 1912. He was immediately called to All Souls Unitarian Church, Schenectady, New York. He next served All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan as associate minister, 1913-15, and minister, 1915-22.

In 1913 Sullivan and Estelle Throckmorton were married. A high school teacher from Washington, D.C,. Estelle shared his enthusiasm for European scholarship. She had also provided him emotional support during his transition from Catholic priest to Unitarian minister.

Sullivan's pulpit eloquence was unsurpassed. His popularity grew after the New York Evening Post began printing his sermons. In 1916 on a trip to the Pacific Coast for the American Unitarian Association, he preached more than forty sermons in a single month.

In the 1920s, during a period of internal theological controversy among Unitarians, Sullivan was one of the most influential and strenuous defenders of theism in the denomination. He and George R. Dodson came to the National Convention of 1921 planning to introduce a resolution to formulate and adopt a statement of faith. However, Sullivan's emotional advocacy and his vehement attacks on his humanist opponent, John H. Dietrich, damaged his own cause so much that the measure was dropped. Stung by Sullivan's denunciations, some opponents suggested that converts from Catholicism ought not to be accepted into ministerial fellowship.

With Charles Edwards Park, Sullivan wrote A Statement to the Country by the Unitarian Laymen's League, 1920. The pamphlet was aimed at "fair-minded and patriotic men and women" and was written to address the growing "spiritual and moral dangers confronting [the] Republic." The success of the pamphlet prompted the newly founded Unitarian Laymen's League to engage Sullivan as their first mission preacher. From 1922-24 he preached 23 missions across the United States and Canada.

Weary after two years of continual travel and mission preaching, Sullivan resigned his position with the Laymen's League. Although he hoped to concentrate on scholarly research and writing, he nevertheless agreed to fill a pastorate temporarily at the Church of the Messiah in St. Louis, Missouri. During the four years of his stay he also taught at Meadville Theological School and lectured widely throughout the West.

In 1928 Sullivan withdrew to Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania to devote his time to writing. He was, however, barraged with requests for sermons and lectures. Realizing that it would be less disruptive to his work if he were a settled minister, in 1929 he accepted the call of the Society of Germantown, Pennsylvania. He remained there until his death. One who knew him in Germantown remembered him as "towering in his ability to lift and to lead, yet warmly near in his tender concern for the smallest human suffering; a man oppressed by the problems of this world's evil, but radiant in his faith in a Kingdom yet to be."

Sullivan's gospel included belief in God and trust in the transformative and transcendent potential of the Christian religion. He wanted no part of a godless religion: "In plainer words," he tells us, "humanity without God is degraded, and a religion without God is dead."

His sermons, articles, and addresses reveal a man motivated by moral conviction, who strove to lift public and private standards to a higher ground. He believed that Christians should act as "philanthropists," working in concert to better the lot of all of humanity, and that their church should be "a Power-house of social energy." A prophet for a global community, in 1918 he wrote: "We are not an isolated nation, independent of mankind elsewhere; and it is only frenzied politicians or provincial backwoodsmen who pretend that we can be securely indifference to the world's safety and sorrow."

"Of what am I wholly certain?" Sullivan asked himself, late in life. He answered, "That I am under a law to seek truth; that I am under a law to develop and to cultivate graciousness and love. I have not chosen these. I do not patronize these. They are as much a law of nature as gravitation. They are the essence of our spiritual nature."

The William Laurence Sullivan Papers are in the Unitarian Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to works mentioned above, and to many published pamphlets, addresses, and sermons, Sullivan wrote The Priest: A Tale of Modernism in New England (1911); From the Gospels to the Creeds: Studies in the Early History of the Christian Church (1919); and Readings for Meditation (1922). Some of his works were published posthumously: Epigrams and Criticisms in Miniature, 1936; his autobiography, Under Orders, 1944; and a collection of meditations and prayers, Flaming Spirit, 1961. Unpublished works include a tome on evolution, two novel-length works of fiction, a half-dozen short stories, and a stage play. He published many articles in journals and newspapers and for six years reviewed books for the New York Herald-Tribune.

Works on Sullivan's life and thought include Charles H. Strong, "Eulogy offered at W. L. Sullivan's Memorial Service," 20 October 1935, in the William Laurence Sullivan Papers; Omer Hillman Mott, "William Laurence Sullivan," The Christian Register (1935); Max F. Daskam et al, "William Laurence Sullivan As We Knew Him," The Flaming Spirit: Meditations and Prayers of William L. Sullivan (1961); Warren E. Duclos, "Crisis of an American Modernist," Church History, (1972); and Daniel C. Chandler, "The Rhetorical Synthesis of William Laurence Sullivan," Journal of Communication and Religion, (March 1989). For background to his religious controversies see R. Scott Appleby, "Modernism as the Final Phase of Americanism," Harvard Theological Review, (April 1988) and Mason Olds, Religious Humanism in America: Dietrich, Reese, and Potter (1977).

Article by Marc Fredette - posted May 19, 2002

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